A letter from Rome

June 23, 2017
Personal Stories

By John Fitzsimon

Just over 37 years ago I learned about leukaemia. The hard way. I was a 17 year old schoolboy with no experience of illness or accidents, nor any pointy medical instruments beyond the occasional dentist needle and drill! At that time my main thoughts were on what I might do once I finished high school at the end of the year.

All that changed one afternoon in June 1975 after a trip to the local GP in my home town of Leeton, NSW, following an extended bout of tiredness. A roller coaster ride started the same evening and continued over the next few months, as the staff of St Vincent’s in Sydney and my parents, brothers and sisters joined battle with me to defeat what I later learned was a particularly tough, acute version of the disease. Our extended family; school mates and teachers present and past; and our home town friends and neighbours all provided support in many ways. I encountered in those weeks more pointy medical instruments than I could keep count of…

This was at a time when the odds of survival for my type of leukaemia were well, pretty low in the short term and not much more than zero after that. I knew I was in a tight spot, but it never came into my head that I wouldn’t beat it. I suppose I had the advantage of a teenager’s sense of invincibility, and an unbounded optimism that has served me all my life. I had the utmost faith that Professor James Biggs and his team of doctors and the wonderful nurses and nurses aides who watched over me in St Vincent’s could do anything. But I also knew that much of the treatment I was experiencing was experimental, and that it would contribute to the medical research of the day into the disease.

The treatment was drastic – with plenty of bizarre side effects that came and went as the treatment was modified or new treatments were added to combat them – but the drugs and the blood transfusions from my sisters, together with the fantastic care offered by St Vincent’s Hospital to me and to my family, got me through. Like all parents in their situation mine suffered terribly at the time and I believe that the comfort the doctors and nursing staff gave them was just as important as the treatment they gave me. I went into remission in October that year, completed my schooling soon after, and by early the next year had matriculated to all the Universities I had applied for.

As far as I was concerned, James Biggs and his team could in fact do anything! The team at St Vincent’s Hospital, and then in Canberra under Dr. Pembrey while I studied at ANU, continued my treatment through the rest of the ’70s ensuring that my remission became permanent. Since then I have worked as an Australian and international public servant in many countries, appreciating every day – no matter the challenge or set back, grateful for the investments in medical science and patient care that helped me weather the challenge thrown at me that winter of ’75. Today I work for the United Nations in their specialized agency for food and agriculture in Rome, Italy.

I have spent much of my working life outside Australia, giving to leukaemia charities in other parts of the world when I occasionally come across them. I knew from my own and others’ experience, and hearing about some of the scientific advances made in tackling this family of diseases, the value of continually pursuing medical research. I also knew the vital importance of promoting patient and family care and mental strength, and of helping them economically to fight the disease together. How wonderful it was for me when I recently came across the Arrow Bone Marrow Transplant Foundation, learned through its website about its record of supporting these efforts back home in Australia, and became a supporter to its cause.

The same cause that – all those years ago – others had made their own, and by doing so had helped save me.

‘So much more research is necessary to overcome this disease’ writes Professor James Biggs

I was delighted to read John’s letter and to learn about the significant contributions he has made and continues to make to society since those very difficult days at St Vincents’ Hospital when he underwent chemotherapy for Acute Myeloblastic Leukaemia. In those days remissions could be achieved, but virtually all patients relapsed and subsequently died.

John was one of the lucky few cured of the disease!!

Because of these poor outcomes, we commenced the Bone Marrow Transplant programme. Early patients were treated when they had advanced disease and none had long term cures. In 1981, we commenced transplanting patients in first remission and 50 per cent achieved long term cures, indeed, the first such patient is still alive 31 years later.

Although there have been further improvements in drug therapy and transplantation, we are still quite a long way from 100 per cent long term survival or cure in severe forms of acute leukaemia. A better understanding of the molecular changes responsible for the disease may make long term remissions possible without transplantation. So much more research is necessary to overcome this disease.

Upcoming Events